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After LeBron James left Cleveland for the second time in 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers returned to being the most irrelevant team in the NBA. They went from going to the finals every year to becoming allergic to winning altogether. They were the laughingstock of the league, and whenever the NBA schedule came out, you could book the Cavs in as an easy win.

When the Cavs got off to a 4-2 start to begin last season, optimism started to creep in. However, they finished the year 22-50, and it was just the same old version of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball. Fast forward to this season, and the Cavs are 27-19, already surpassing last season’s win total and they are two games out of first place in the East. Suddenly, Cleveland has become the land of believing again. They look like a legitimate playoff contender, who can go on a Cinderella run.

What has sparked this major turnaround? 

Everyone made fun of this team for going big, in an era where small ball rules. Not only did the Cavs trade for franchise center Jarrett Allen last season as part of the James Harden trade, but they also drafted Evan Mobley in this past draft. Then, they signed Lauri Markkanen to a deal in free agency including Kevin Love, that gave the Cavs 4 seven-footers.

That is almost unheard of in today’s NBA.

However, with Markkanen, Mobley, and Allen on the floor, the Cavs have a defensive rating of 100.9, which is the best in the NBA. Good luck driving into the paint against those three. They fit so well together on both ends of the floor and have developed amazing chemistry.

Jarrett Allen is looking like an All-Star averaging 17 PPG, 11 RPG, and 1.5 BPG. Evan Mobley is the leading candidate for rookie of the year, averaging 15/7/3, along with almost 2 blocks per game. Lastly, Lauri Markkanen has been a much-improved defender this year and is able to space the floor so Allen and Mobley can dominate the paint.

As good as those three have been, the biggest revelation comes from the backcourt: Darius Garland.

After Garland’s rookie season, a lot of people were concerned about him and if he could develop into a great NBA point guard. He was among the worst players in the league statistically and was largely inefficient on offense. For the year, he averaged 12 points on 40/35/88 shooting splits, along with 4 assists.

However, Garland took a big step last season as he averaged 17 points on 46/40/85 shooting splits, along with 6 assists. Fast forward to this season and one thing is clear about Darius Garland: he is an All-Star point guard. Not only is he averaging 20 points on 46/37/92 shooting splits with 8 assists, but he has also blossomed into a leader that this Cavs team has lacked in the backcourt for the past couple of seasons.

With Garland off the court, the Cavs have a net rating of -2.5, compared to a net rating of 6.3 with him on the court. He knows when to create for himself and when to create for others. The way he plays the pick and roll with Mobley and Allen is beautiful to watch. As if this is not enough, in his past 9 games he is averaging 21 points and 11 assists. He has 95 TOTAL assists in those 9 games as well. It will honestly be the biggest travesty of the NBA season if Garland is not an All-Star. He is emerging as one of the best young point guards in today’s game and he is only going up folks.

Finally, the bread and butter of this Cavs team is defense.

They have the third-best defense in the NBA and this is in large part because of the three-headed monster they start in the frontcourt. However, guys like Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, and even Garland, have blossomed into great defenders. Head Coach JB Bickerstaff has this team bought in on that end of the floor.

Defense is essential to winning games in this league and the Cavs get stops at an elite level.

The bottom line is that the Cavs have become the best feel-good story in the NBA this season. They are a young team on the rise and look to make some noise in 2022. They are not a slouch anymore. Basketball fever is back in Cleveland and it is here to stay.

Photo: Tommy Gilligan | USA Today